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Sat Dec 11 11:55:04 MST 1999
Los Angeles Times, December 10, 1999, Friday
WORLD PERSPECTIVE; SOUTH AFRICA; NATION'S ACCOMMODATION OF ETHIOPIAN DESPOT
by DEAN E. MURPHY, TIMES STAFF WRITER
DATELINE: JOHANNESBURG, South Africa
Leaders of the ruling African National Congress have a tradition of
standing by their friends from the struggle against apartheid--no matter
how unpopular those friendships may be elsewhere.
Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi received a hero's welcome when he attended
President Thabo Mbeki's inauguration in June. The state-owned media openly
gushed when President Fidel Castro of Cuba paid a recent visit. Some ANC
officials even argued for leniency in the prosecution of anti-apartheid
activist Allan Boesak, convicted of embezzling international donations,
because of his credentials in the struggle.
But human rights activists say the ANC's choice of strange bedfellows has
gone too far in the case of former Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile
Mariam. Mengistu, who lives in exile in Zimbabwe, is wanted in Ethiopia for
crimes against humanity committed during his 17-year rule, which ended with
his overthrow in 1991.
Mengistu spent most of the past month in a Johannesburg hospital for
treatment of stomach ulcers, an arrangement authorized by Mbeki's office on
"medical and humanitarian grounds," according to a presidential spokesman.
When it comes to old friends, government officials have said, the door to
South Africa is open.
"We cannot forget our history," Joel Netshitenzhe, head of government
communications, told reporters recently.
The erstwhile Marxist dictator quietly slipped out of South Africa last
week after Ethiopian authorities demanded his extradition and human rights
activists here and abroad called for his arrest.
Few doubt that Mengistu was encouraged to leave by the South African
government. Officials here apparently had no intention of honoring the
extradition and arrest requests, but the image of Africa's most heralded
democracy harboring an alleged murderous despot was becoming an
Mengistu is gone, but the decision to not detain him--at least until the
legal basis for his prosecution could be investigated--has set off a more
fundamental debate about South Africa's commitment to human rights.
Mbeki has asserted this nation's leadership by calling for an African
renaissance grounded in a respect for human rights and democracy. The ANC
has long argued that South Africa has special moral authority in promoting
such a renewal because it has risen above its own violent and abusive past.
But Venitia Govender, national director of the Human Rights Committee of
South Africa, said the ANC has risked the country's progress by putting an
old friendship ahead of the common good.
"The ANC can have their own ideas about Mengistu, but as a government we
need to have a policy that does not have different criteria applying to
different people," Govender said. "When you let a culture of impunity
develop, you have to put up with the grave consequences. We have seen that
happen in this country."
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said Mengistu is the chief accused in
ongoing Ethiopian trials of 2,000 former officials on charges of genocide
and war crimes. He also is being tried separately by Ethiopia in absentia.
Watchdog groups say as many as 100,000 people died as a result of forced
relocations ordered by Mengistu's regime in the late 1970s.
"The South Africans had a mass murderer on their hands, and they let him
go," said Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, which appealed to Mbeki's
government two weeks ago to bring Mengistu to justice under South African
law. "It sets a horrible precedent for the continent and the world."
In radio interviews from his home in Zimbabwe, Mengistu said the South
Africans had assured him that he would not be detained. He also suggested
that he may return for additional treatment. He credited his long
relationship with the ANC, whose underground members received guerrilla
training in Ethiopia during his rule.
"Many South African government ministers are my friends," Mengistu said.
"We were comrades in arms during the revolution."
Copyright© 1999, LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All Rights
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